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Is the background brighter than the foreground? Fix the Pix, Episode 4
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Is the background brighter than the foreground? Fix the Pix, Episode 4

How to avoid shadowy figures

Your subject is sitting by the window and you can see her face perfectly, but your digital camera can't. Here's why, and how to fix the problem.


Today’s Fix the Pix was photographed using a Panasonic DMC-ZR1 and a Canon G10.

Cameras don't like uneven light. So, when you point a camera at someone standing in shadow—indoors against a window, under an awning with a bright, sun-drenched scene behind them, and so on, you are likely to get a dark, featureless outline of them while the background is perfectly exposed.

Perfect exposure of the outside scene—but I want to see my daughter’s face, and she’s sitting inside a bus, where it’s much darker. Something’s got to give.

There are several ways to fix this:

Turn on your flash: Use your camera's flash as a fill-in light to balance out the brightness. Switch the flash setting from the default (auto flash) to flash always on (a lightening bolt). The downside? If you're shooting someone standing near a window, the flash will bounce right back at you, creating an unwanted bright spot.

Flash on: Now the foreground and background are balanced, but the reflection of the flash in the window is a distraction.

Use exposure compensation: A more advanced way to mitigate strong backlighting is to adjust the camera's exposure compensation. Increase it by two stops and the entire scene will be lightened. The downside is that the background will most likely be too bright, and there may be some flare, which means even though your subject might be better exposed, the contrast might be too low and details might be obscured.

Exposure compensation:  I get a perfect exposure by boosting my camera’s EV +1.5 stops. Now she’s exposed perfectly, but the scenery is blown out. I’ll take that compromise.

Use spot metering: Some cameras will let you selectively meter just the center area of the picture, giving you the best exposure for the target area only while the rest of the picture will be over or underexposed, depending on the scene. Result is similar to what you'd get using exposure compensation.

Re-orient the subject: If none of the above works, move your subject so the light is shining on him or her, and the background is dark. In fact, if you're shooting near a window, the light coming in can be very flattering for a portrait subject.

Just one more: In a similarly-lit situation, I positioned my daughter so she would be lit from a window at right as the sole light source, and captured this softly lit, flattering portrait.

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